Sunday, October 7, 2001



More than 100 examples of scrimshaw are on
display at Whalers Villlage Museum.

Museum a window
into whaling days

The industry played an important
role in the islands' growth and development

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Beginning next month, flotillas of boats will ply Hawaiian waters with full loads of passengers hoping to catch a glimpse of magnificent humpbacks. Measuring about 45 feet long and weighing up to 80,000 pounds, these gentle giants migrate each year from chilly Alaskan waters to winter with us. They usually stay through April, mating, giving birth to 1.5-ton calves and thrilling spectators with their lively tail slaps, breaches and other antics.

More than 150 years ago, thousands of sailors also roamed the Pacific in search of whales. Armed with heavy iron harpoons, they conquered the mighty creatures and collected their oil for lamps, their baleen for buggy whips and umbrella ribs, and their prized ambergris for use as a fixative for perfume. During the heyday of the industry in the mid-1800s, Lahaina, on Maui, was the principal port for America's Pacific whaling fleet. In 1846, whaling's peak year, 429 ships dropped anchor in Lahaina to re-provision and set their crews loose for rest and recreation.

Sailors etched drawings on whale bone, teeth and baleen.
It then was rubbed with ink to bring out the design.

The rowdy seamen clashed with pious missionaries who were working to establish Lahaina as a bastion of Christianity. From 1802 to 1850 the picturesque seaside town also was the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and the home of the alii (royalty). With such an intriguing cast of characters, it's no wonder Lahaina's story remains one of the most enthralling chapters in island history.

In Whalers Village shopping mall in neighboring Kaanapali Resort, Whalers Village Museum chronicles Lahaina's golden era of whaling (1825-1860) through hundreds of fascinating artifacts, including harpoons, sea chests, ships' logs, sailors' journals, tools and utensils. Photo murals and eye-catching graphics enhance the exhibit areas, and short films on whales and whaling are screened continually throughout the day.

Whalers Village Museum opened in 1984 under the directorship of whale expert Lewis Eisenberg. It is funded by the Estate of James Campbell, a private trust.

"James Campbell, the estate's founder, came to Maui as a carpenter on board a whale ship," Eisenberg explains. "His first business venture in Hawaii was servicing the whaling industry as a purveyor of goods and repair services. When the estate purchased Whalers Village in the early 1980s, it was a natural progression to build upon the original theme and give recognition to James Campbell's early days in Hawaii."

Models of a 19th century whaling ships are a
highlight at the Lahaina museum.

The 2,100-square-foot museum tells the story of whaling from the perspective of ordinary sailors. Displays describe what daily life was like for these adventurers during whale hunts that usually lasted between three and five years. Two dozen men lived in the forecastle of their vessel -- a cramped space of no more than 600 square feet. Bunks were stacked end to end and on top of each other. Everything a sailor owned was crammed into one small sea chest.

Meals for the crew consisted primarily of hardtack and stews made from salted beef stored in barrels in the bowels of the ship. Before the men could eat the hardtack, they had to beat it on the deck to rid it of bugs and then soak it in stew until it was soft enough to chew.

Excitement reigned whenever the lookout perched in the crow's nest shouted, "Thar she blows!" But between whale sightings, life at sea was monotonous. To make the hours pass more quickly, sailors began carving drawings on whale bone, teeth and baleen. Ink was rubbed over the etched surface to bring out the design.

Whalers Village Museum

Address: Mezzanine level of Whalers Village, 2435 Kaanapali Pkwy., Lahaina, HI 96761

Phone: 808-661-5992

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Admission: Free. Self-guided audio tours are available in English, Spanish, German and Japanese. Led by certified marine naturalists, guided tours for groups can be arranged with advance notice.

Web site:

Thus, scrimshaw -- supposedly the only nonaboriginal, indigenous American folk art -- was born. Themes ran the gamut, from ships, women and whales to mermaids, maps and crucifixes. The striking works of art often served practical purposes: Seamen fashioned combs, belt buckles and nautical gear for themselves, and hairpins, pie crimpers and corset stays for ladies back home.

More than 100 fine examples of scrimshaw are displayed at Whalers Village Museum, from canes to ornaments to water dippers. Of particular interest is a large birdcage made entirely from sperm whale jawbone and teeth. Says Eisenberg, "This rare piece would have been made by an officer or ship's captain who would have had the room in his cabin to keep a parrot."

Eisenberg also is proud of the museum's 12-foot model of a 19th-century whaler. He notes, "It is one of the largest-scale model ships in existence and cost $22,000 to build in 1983, which is about as much as the original ship would have cost in 1843."

In Eisenberg's opinion the whaling industry played a more important role in Hawaii's history than most people realize. "It changed the islands' small, independent communities into centers for agriculture," he points out. "Ranching was started on the Big Island to serve the Yankee sailors' appetite for beef. Produce like potatoes, onions, even sugar cane, were developed to support the whaling industry. It was because the U.S. dominated this industry that strong ties of commerce developed between Hawaii and the United States." These ties, Eisenberg added, ultimately helped Hawaii win statehood.

The city of Honolulu flourished because ships needed a site to store whale oil and bone before shipping them to New England. Honolulu also became a place for captains to recruit sailors and repair and refurbish their ships. "In fact," Eisenberg observes, "Honolulu grew so fast and became so crowded and expensive, captains could not afford to leave their ships there for any length of time. Lahaina, with its free, safe roadstead, became the first choice of the whaling fleet. The roadstead could swell to over 400 ships at anchor at one time."

To the chagrin of the missionaries, the lusty sailors enjoyed their shore leave to the fullest. When it was time for them to set sail, islanders provided the service of rounding up any men who were reluctant to head back to sea.

Lahaina's whaling days are long gone. But Whalers Village Museum provides a way for us to slip back to that colorful era.

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